There are a lot of different opinions out there when it comes to deciding what exactly is the best hiking boot for your needs, especially in recent years. Many will say you don’t actually need hiking shoes at all – a simple trainer will do. Many old school outdoors people will tell you that making sure you have the sturdiest boot imaginable is the best option, whilst another school of thought leads towards ultralight weight. Really, this question can be answered depending on exactly what you plan to do and perhaps future thinking a little bit to what you may want to do down the line. When you add in the idea of waterproof hiking shoes, this opens up a whole other area of hopelessly endless options. To make things easier for you, we’ve broken down exactly what to look for in waterproof hiking shoes.
Editor’s note: This article is part of our guide to the very best waterproof hiking shoes, be sure to check out the rest of this guide for our top buying tips:
Types of Waterproof Hiking Shoes
Trying to decide between all the options out there can feel like a difficult decision – there really does seem to be a never-ending list of newcomers and others that boast impressive stats that make you wonder. Use this guide to help you get to grips with the key, important facets to help you decide, which are the best waterproof hiking shoes to suit your needs.
Budget Hiking Shoes
Of course, there is a huge range in price when it comes to waterproof hiking shoes that are out on the market right now. In our main guide alone, these range between $60 and $389. On the upper end, that is a lot to spend on a hiking shoe! However, if you’re going to be outdoors a lot and performance is your game, then this will be money well spent and a good investment. If you’re new to hiking or aren’t really sure where you plan to go with your time outdoors or if you’ll get so much use out of it, there are of course cheaper options. You’ll generally find that the pricier options boast impressive materials, incredible breathability and come from well-respected brands. However, that isn’t always the case. You don’t have to spend a fortune to get a waterproof hiking shoe that can serve you well – especially if you want to build up your kit and don’t want to put too much into it right now. For example, we were very impressed with the Regatta Vendeavour Pro, coming in at $53.50/£41.56-£61.99. This shoe really punched above its weight and could easily stand up against some of its much pricier competitors. So don’t let price alone fool you!
Ultralight Hiking Shoes
Waterproof hiking shoes and boots have become an awful lot lighter over the last few years – and this is something that has happened across the board. Even hiking shoes that already consider themselves as lightweight are coming out with improvements to make themselves lighter and lighter. You’ll typically find that lightweight hiking shoes are made of synthetic materials or light organic materials and will have less to go with in terms of ankle height and stability. You’ll generally find more mesh on lightweight hiking shoes – this has a significant impact on weight, but when it comes to waterproof hiking shoes, materials like Gore-Tex can make all the difference in comparison to some more old school techniques for waterproofing. You’ll often find that the ultralight weight hiking shoes out there look more like trail runners than what you might traditionally see. If you’re someone who really wants to make the most of the trail with an ultralightweight hiking shoe, then this may well be for you.
If you’re also comfortable with your ankles and stability, having this flexibility can make all the difference if you don’t feel like you really need all that much support. You’d typically want to use ultralightweight hiking shoes in situations where you’re not carrying the heaviest pack weight too. Some of our favorites in this category were The North Face Hedgehog Fastpack and the Danner Women’s Trail 2650.
Trail Running Shoes
What is a trail running shoe and how does it enter the conversation here? Following on from ultralight hiking shoes, a trail runner can also be a good option too for something that is a hybrid between a fastpack or ultralight backpacking shoe and a very lightweight hiking shoe. A trail runner is designed to grip onto much softer surfaces than traditional urban runners that are designed for specifically for the kind of hard surfaces you’d expect to get on a road. This can be really important when it comes to lose scree on a trail or if there has been rain. It’s advised to stick away from wearing trail running shoes on pavements for anything over 10km as the slightly softer soles can actually become worn a lot more easily. Will trail running shoes do as hiking shoes? It depends what kind of activity you’re planning. Generally speaking, you’re likely to get a longer life out of a pair of ultralight hiking shoes if you go hiking a lot than you will trail running shoes. They are fine in some occasions, but we really would recommend sticking with actual hiking shoes to get the best experience and longevity out of your purchase.
If you’re someone who takes on a lot of trickier terrain, or want to down the line, then an approach shoe may be the best option for you. In the past, there used to be a really big margin between traditional hiking boots and shoes and approach shoes, but as technology has improved materials, the gap has narrowed and there isn’t a lot in it between some of the more technical waterproof hiking shoes and specifically marketed approach shoes out there. An approach shoe gives you the ability to have something you know is going to work if you have a very technical walk into a climb for example. In that regard, we’ve been very impressed with the Black Diamond Mission Low Waterproof Approach Shoes. The thing that impressed us with these shoes is that they have support geared specifically to climbing – such as sturdy toecap construction and heel brake which would be incredibly useful with via feratta. It really is a personal choice dependent on what you see yourself doing in the outdoors, but if you are looking to take on more technical terrain more frequently, there’s a good chance you could only need an approach shoe for all circumstances other than extreme weather.
One question we hear asked an awful lot is, ‘Can a hiking sandal really replace a hiking shoe or boot?’ We are very much of the opinion that hiking sandals can be great, but they shouldn’t replace your hiking shoe. In all circumstances that we’ve tested out hiking sandals, we’ve found that debris can enter the shoe really easily – of course there are many products on the market that have a ‘caged’ design, meaning they are much more armored to debris, but even so this has always been a problem. They’re also not always the most protective on your toes and can lead to injuries in tough terrain. Hiking sandals can be a great option for the evening at camp though – they can be easily lashed onto a backpack and give you a welcome break from your hiking shoes or boots.
Hiking boots don’t always need to be heavy – but they can be and these are often called ‘heavyweight hikers’ too. They’re typically more traditional in design, coming in materials like full grain leather and focus on support and rigidity. In terms of waterproofing, they can be excellent too, especially on things like river crossings or boggy situations where you may need to walk through deeper water or mud than the lower ankle hiking shoes out there offer. If you know you’re someone who also needs a bit more ankle support, a hiking boot may be a better option for you. The downside is that a lot of hiking and even mountaineering boots can be very rigid and lack the kind of breathability that hiking shoes can offer. Its integral to think about the kind of terrain you expect to use your footwear in, as this will help you decide what’s right for you. For example, a hiking boot may well be the best option if you often find yourself in wet or cold terrain. This may be overkill if you’re hiking in the desert most of the year. We particularly liked the Salomon Quest 4 Gore-Tex and the Scarpa Ribelle Lite HD, both available as unisex.
Types of Trails Suitable for Hiking Shoes
Hiking and walking as a term covers anything you might do as an on your feet adventure. This could be much longer trails or taking in a backpacking trip where weight and speed are probably going to be your most important concerns. It could also be a more level grounded trail, day hikes and everything in between. Here are some of the scenarios you could expect to need hiking shoes and the differences between them.
Ultralight backpackers will tell you that all you need is an ultralight shoe to take on some of the most demanding trails in the world. Would we agree? Well, as you may have gathered by now, we always say it really depends on you and your experience. If you know that you’re a little bit less stable on your feet, you might want to opt for something more like a hiking boot than a shoe. This also goes the same for weather – if you’re going to encounter deep snow, a lightweight hiking shoe may not cut it. However, for the majority of uses, you will find that a waterproof hiking shoe will be great for long-distance hikes. For long distance hikes, you want a shoe that feels ultimately comfortable and ready for any terrain. We’d recommend the Danner Women’s Trail 2650 which is also available as men’s and unisex or the Danner Panorama Mid which is also available as women’s or unisex.
Really, as above, if you’re looking to try and keep things light weight and want to improve fatigue and go further on the trail, a waterproof hiking shoe will be a great addition for backpacking. It’s been said that the weight you carry on your feet is x5, so if you’re backpacking you will really notice this! With backpacking, it really depends on your pack weight, but opting for a lightweight waterproof hiking shoe is going to give you protection in every scenario you’re likely to find yourself in.
If you’re more of a day hiker, depending on where most of your hikes take place, you should be more than ok wearing pretty much any of the waterproof hiking shoes we’ve recommended in our round up. Obviously pay attention to the kind of conditions you are likely to encounter the most – for example, if you’re used to hiking in boggy and wet conditions, a pair of higher boot style hiking shoes may be better for you. If you spend most of your time in the desert or dry places or are also a fair-weather hiker, a good pair of lightweight hiking shoes would fit the bill well. Every shoe we’ve recommended here would be suitable for day hiking, especially so as they all are rated waterproof.
There is quite a crossover these days between hiking shoes, fastpacking shoes and trail running shoes. In the past, these were distinctly different, but now, you’ll find that a lot of people will actually opt for a trail runner for light to moderate hiking in good weather and trail conditions due to the lightweight options that are available. Trail runners have a different sole to traditional runners – they are softer and have a better grip when it comes to rained out surfaces or rock. If you’re looking for a general purpose shoe, you will likely find that any of the lightweight hiking shoes we’ve recommended would work here – we particularly love the Danner Women’s Trail 2650 for its breathability, lightness and grip.
There are a whole range of materials that are used in the construction of waterproof hiking shoes – and these can vary a lot depending on how much you spend. From ultra tech materials to more basic or traditional designs. These are some of the areas to look out for to help you make a decision based on your needs from a hiking shoe.
The fabrics used on waterproof hiking shoes can vary wildly, and you will usually find that most of this variance comes with an increase and decrease in price point. You’ll typically find that almost all of the shoes we’ve reviewed have breathable mesh fitted – which is a great thing considering waterproofing can often impact breathability. In fact, the only exception to this rule is with the Muck Boot Apex Lace Ups we’ve reviewed which has an entirely rubberised finish. Many waterproof hiking shoes will still make use of leather and suede as their main ‘body’ materials too – but there are a lot of entirely synthetic models out there now, which make a great option if you want to steer away from animal products for any reason (however if you’re looking for a vegan hiking shoe, be sure to check with the manufacturer as some glues still contain animal products. Some brands have become much better at adding this information to their product listings in recent years).
Generally, we’ve found that the difference between synthetic materials and animal-based materials isn’t that great. Leather is of course a well-known material for shoes of any kind but it doesn’t have to be the go to for durability anymore – there are so many incredible advancements, this is just not the case now.
In terms of waterproofing, the main name you will hear is Gore-Tex, which is used in hiking shoes to create a waterproof, breathable fabric membrane. Most of the waterproof hiking shoes we’ve listed use Gore-Tex or something similar. Making a decision on fabric really is a personal decision – and these can have an impact on weight too. Weigh up what it is you plan to do and where you stand on things like animal-based materials to make the choice that suits your hiking needs best.
The upper of your hiking shoe is the section that covers your foot and looks up to the sky, so to speak – it is the main body of the shoe. You’ll typically find that most (but not all) hiking shoes come with a mesh upper. Even if the shoe outwardly looks like it has another material as its main surface, you’ll find air vents which will be meshed out. This helps massively with breathability, in one of the areas you need it most. Of course, here we are talking about waterproof hiking shoes, and you might wonder if a mesh upper would be so? Typically, mesh uppers will use a waterproof membrane as well to combine breathability with waterproofing. This isn’t always the case though, and this is more often found on hiking boots that are intended for insulation and harsh mountain conditions, such as the Scarpa Ribelle Lite HD. Whilst it is breathable, it has a much ‘harder’ finish. Ultimately, you need to decide what kind of terrain you’re looking to cover with your new waterproof hiking shoes and go from there – the Scarpa Ribelle Lite HD may well be overkill for many situations, but if high alpine is your goal, you may want to consider it.
If you have specific needs from your footwear and have been recommended to go with specific insoles, then pretty much all hiking shoes you come across will have a replaceable insole. This is self-explanatory as insoles of course wear down over time, so replacing an insole can be a very good way of getting years more wear and tear from your hiking shoes. However, if you don’t need a specialist insole, most of the insoles that come in waterproof hiking shoes are pretty much the same from our experience. Some may be slightly more cushioned than others – but you are more likely to feel comfort in your hiking shoe from the sole and the shock absorption they have rather than the insoles themselves. Some shoes will boast three-layer cushioning in their insoles as opposed to a more traditional one layer or foam insole, but we do not think this should be a deciding factor for your purchase.
There are a few fairly well-known names when it comes to the soles of hiking shoes, and in fact, a good portion of the waterproof hiking shoes we’ve reviewed come with either a Vibram or more recently, a Continental sole. Both brands are well known for producing soles that have a great amount of grip and traction. However, they are not the only solutions, and you will often find that the brand has a specific traction model for their sole that is very well tested. Generally speaking, all hiking shoes come with a much more grippable sole than a traditional trainer – which is why we would generally always recommend wearing hiking shoes.
This can have a huge impact in harsh terrain and on slippery surfaces. On shoes, the sole will be much more malleable – if you hold the shoe and crush it inwards, you’ll find this bends – this is to give you flex on the ground but it can also mean you’ll feel more as you hike. With harder wearing boots, such as the Scarpa Ribelle Lite HD, the B2 rating means the boot is almost unbendable making it much more rigid for tough alpine conditions. You may be someone who finds you want to feel the ground more as this can help with being aware of where you are putting your feet. You may be someone who likes a shoe to feel rigid – wherever your preference lies, the sole is the place you’ll want to consider based off your intended usage.
The breathability of waterproof hiking shoes has massively improved over the last few years. In the past, a fully waterproof shoe would have been entirely closed off, but now, with improvements in mesh technology and things like Gore-Tex membranes, you can achieve a much more breathable shoe that also stands up to the elements. If you’re going to be hiking in hotter temperatures, you’ll really want to take breathability as a fairly hefty deciding factor for your purchase. Look for models that make use of dry vent mesh or have significant mesh sections on the upper. This is where The North Face Hedgehog Fastpack wins out pretty solidly. Not only is it waterproof, it’s also one of the most breathable shoes, and therefore comfortable hiking shoes in our reviews. However, there is a limit to the waterproof nature of a mesh upper – and if you know you’re going to be taking on river crossings or boggy and damp terrain, you may be better suited to the Salomon Quest 4 Gore-Tex which makes use of mesh with a waterproof Gore-Tex membrane – these boots are fantastically breathable whilst keeping your feet dry in every eventuality we tested.
Durability is a very subjective thing. This is simply because you can’t really plan for all eventualities of a hiking shoe, and you also can’t plan exactly how much you’re going to use it. The different surfaces you can expect to wear a hiking shoe on are going to really affect its longevity too. So, when buying a hiking shoe, you can’t really predict that fully, but what you can do is look for materials that you know are going to be durable and fit for the types of places you expect to spend most of your time in. All the hiking shoes that we’ve outlined in our main review are rated as medium to high and what that means is you can expect them to last well in all instances.
The support your hiking shoes offer you is going to make a big difference in how you feel on the trail, and in turn, how much you feel like wearing them and getting out. Whether you’re a day hiker or a backpacker, we believe the support you need from your hiking shoe is the same regardless of the pack weight you’re carrying. This will also increase if you feel you are less sturdy on your feet. Below we’ve outlined some of the main areas to look for in terms of support and the areas you may need it most.
Ankle support is very subjective – some people will be much happier knowing that their ankles are fully covered with a rigid shoe that will protect them from any eventuality. Whilst other folks will be happier with a lighter shoe that will allow them to move more flexibly and speedily. A lot of the shoes we’ve outlined in our reviews can either be classed as low or mid hiking shoes and the variance on the ankle support is pretty huge – you’ll see this across the board on all modern hiking shoes on the market. Where ankle support comes in, think about how sturdy you feel on the trail – this will help you decide if a more robust hiking boot is better for you than a lower shoe.
The arch of your foot is along the bottom of your foot between the ball and heel and forms a kind of triangle. Most hiking shoes you find on the market will be offered with a gentle arch support – and this will mostly come from different padding gradations in the insole which can help prevent any shock to the arch of your foot that may cause pain. If you find that your arch hurts a lot when out hiking, replacing the insoles that come with your hiking shoes can help a lot here. For example, we found that the flat arch support in the Scarpa Ribelle Lite HD was a little too flat and needed a different (inexpensive to replace) insole to improve this. If you’ve never been aware of your arches before, you’ll generally find that most hiking shoes on the market will be adequate and help prevent shock to the area.
A flexible hiking shoe can be a great companion for the trail – being able to feel where you are can make all the difference to your footing and it can also mean you actually experience more comfort afterwards. More rigid boots are generally not intended for wearing for miles and miles on the trail so much as for technical time in the alpine. This is because having your foot held at a significantly still position for a lengthy time can increase your chances of pressure or swelling on other areas of the foot because it has had to compensate for the lack of flexibility. That said, rigid boots are excellent if you need them! Flexible shoes also help more with tricky terrain, such as slippery or wet surfaces and rocks.
Stability looks at combining all the other areas above – the ankle support, flexibility, and arch support as well as traction, below, all play a large part. The stability of your hiking shoe is going to be important if you’re someone who feels a little less sure footed and wants more support. So, making a decision about how stable your shoe should be informed by the level of ankle support you need and the level of traction you may need given the kind of trails you can expect to use them on most.
The traction of your hiking shoes is related to the sole – and this is one of the main reasons why having a shoe that is specifically designed for hiking can make all the difference to feeling like you have your footing covered on the trail. The traction of a shoe can prevent any slips or falls on muddy inclines and they can also help a lot with smoother rock surfaces or wet areas. It’s really like looking at how the wheels on your car are intended for different purposes – for example, in the winter you may look to put a different, heavier threaded wheel on to deal with snow or muddy areas. You can treat your hiking shoe the same. You’re looking at thread depth here when it comes to hiking shoes, and the deeper the thread (most are medium to deep), the better traction it will give you on the trail.
Comfort is of course one of the most important factors when it comes to your hiking shoes – you need to find a pair that you feel confident in on the trail and know are going to keep you going well whether you’re doing a mile or 200. Comfort comes from a number of areas – how wide the shoe is, the materials used, and the sole for the most part. A lot of hiking shoes out there will offer shock protection and in particular, shoes that come with a Vibram sole are well known for their shock absorption properties. What you should also consider is the breathability of the shoes too – as this will have an impact on comfort. For example, if you plan to wear your hiking shoes in hotter temperatures, opting for a more breathable model will serve you well. If you are going to be in colder temperatures, opt for a shoe with insulation that will keep you warmer. Here are some other, less thought of areas that can also have an impact on your comfort:
You can actually do a lot to improve the comfort of your hiking shoes by looking at how they are laced. There are a number of different lacing patterns you can adopt that can really change the dynamic of your shoes and actually bring back to life that pair that you may not have got on so well within the past. We’ve written a guide all about how various lacing methods can help improve the comfort of your hiking shoes and it can seriously be a game changer. Read the guide to relacing your shoes here.
If you’re someone who has a bit of a tendency to bump your feet into incoming rocks or debris on the trail, you might want to consider the toe protection offered with the hiking shoes you’re planning to buy. Generally, shoes with a more rubberized toe are going to protect you more than shoes that have a greater open mesh section. We particularly like the Danner Women’s Trail 2650 for the toe protection that they offer. If you are looking for something that can actually work really well here, you might want to opt for something that fits more in the category of an approach shoe too as these are generally more robust in the toe section. We recommend the Black Diamond Mission Low Waterproof Approach Shoes.
Weight makes a huge difference when it comes to hiking shoes. In the past, you could expect that waterproof hiking shoes would be heavier than those offered without a waterproof membrane for protection, but things have really changed and improved. There is still a school of thought that suggests heavier weight hiking boots offer more protection, but this is very far from the case these days. The weight you have on your feet makes more of a difference than so many of the other areas you might be considering, so making savings on your footwear can have more of an impact than trying to shave off 200g from your pack weight for example. It’s been shown that the weight on your feet increases by x5 so as you can see, this isn’t a figure to ignore.
All the shoes we’ve recommended in our line up fall in the light and ultralight categories in terms of weight and they don’t scrimp on finish and performance at all. One of the lightest shoes in our roundup are the Keen NXIS EVO Low Height Waterproof Hiking Shoe weighing in at 644g/1lb 6oz. Whereas on the heavier end of the scale, we’ve got the Muck Boot Apex Lace Up weighing in at 1800g/3lb 15oz. Of course, the Muck Boot Apex is much heavier – in fact over twice as heavy as the Keen NXIS EVO, but what the Muck Boot offers is a fully rubberized finish, which you could expect would make this heavier.
Tips for Using and Caring for Your Waterproof Trekking Shoes
A good pair of hiking shoes can last you a long time, obviously dependent on wear and tear and the conditions you use them in. However, you can also do a lot, as you can with most if your outdoor gear to prolong its life for as long as possible. Below we’ve outlined some of the key things you can do to help your hiking shoes.
You can expect to have to go through a break in period with all hiking shoes and be cautious reading user reviews that mention whether something was good to go straight away or needed a longer break-in period. This is because there is such a variance in people’s feet that what one person experienced could be very different from you and the unique shape of your feet. Whilst some hiking shoes are certainly much quicker to break-in, and in fact, some of the shoes in our reviews were good to go straight away, you simply can’t expect this.
Never buy your waterproof hiking shoes right before you need them – we would recommend giving yourself as much time as possible to break them in on shorter walks before your main use. Getting blisters or uncomfortable feet can be extremely painful on the trail and can lead to you having to turn back. You want to bed your shoes in on shorter walks, such as walks around your local area, on errands or even around the house if possible. This will allow your shoes to get used to your feet and vice versa and soften up any areas that are a little tight if needed. There is no set time frame for this, but just as much use as possible before something where the comfort of your shoes is relied on is a good idea.
It’s not necessary all the time but cleaning your hiking shoes can make the most of them, not just for the look and feel of them but also because the materials used can last longer. When you leave mud on your boots or shoes for a long time it can essentially work like sandpaper – wearing down the finish every time you flex and wear your shoes. If you’ve been out somewhere really muddy, we would always recommend hosing them down in the shower or with an outside hose with warm water to rinse away as much mud as possible. You can also buy specialist shoe cleaners such as Boot Buddy, which we’d really recommend. They can be used with relatively little water and can clean up your shoes extremely quickly. We would recommend you not put your hiking shoes in the washing machine as the temperatures can really impact the specialist materials used and you may find that they come out having lost their shape. They can also take a long time to dry this way too. Check that any product you buy is fit for purpose and suitable for the materials of your hiking shoes. Never use soap or detergent as it can leave a residue which is not good for the longevity of your shoes.
Naturally over time, like any outdoors equipment, you can expect the weatherproofing on your hiking shoes to become less efficient. This generally won’t happen for quite some time, and especially on hiking shoes that make use of Gore-Tex as it is well known for keeping resistive to weather. However, if you’re finding that over time your shoes aren’t as waterproof anymore, you can look at weatherproofing yourself with specialist products. We’d really recommend the Grangers Performance Repel Plus – it’s a treatment that restores the water repellent finish and is Bluesign approved and PFC free.
Every now and again, and especially if you experience a winter season, so to speak, it’s a good idea to try and remove any large pieces of mud that may be trapped in the tread of your hiking shoes, give them a scrub to remove any dirt from the surface and generally tidy them up. This will help to maintain their performance and their looks for as long as possible. To keep your hiking boots in good condition for as long as possible, keep them clean and dry.
As much as possible you want to look at storing your hiking shoes in a cool and dry place. If you store them somewhere quite humid it can really affect the longevity of the shoes material and can even lead to mould sometimes, especially if there was any residual moisture on them from last usage. It’s also recommended not to leave them somewhere really hot either as this can impact the materials used too. If you find you’re not going to be using them for a while, it is always wise to clean them up and treat them well and store them away until you need them again.
There are seemingly endless options for hiking shoes out there, and when it comes to waterproof hiking shoes, even more! It can seem overwhelming, but we hope this guide has broken things down and made it easier to decide. Ultimately, not every factor in this guide will be important or applicable to you, so it’s about looking at what your needs are from your hiking shoes and using our overall guide to the best waterproof hiking shoes to make your decision.
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